Headed for Trouble

Erik wanted to help his friend get out of the house. He succeeded -- they're both in prison for life.

Instead, Roger says he thinks Julie caught Nate trying to run away from home, and that a confrontation ensued. He believes that Erik was the catalyst for the crime, and that Julie would be alive today had Erik not shown up.

Roger still thinks about Julie every day, and says he wishes that his son showed some remorse for the murder. But when sixteen-year-olds go to a tough place like prison, he adds, it's not likely they'll ever understand the consequences of their actions. "I can see things that most people probably don't think about because it doesn't affect their lives," Roger says. "I'm a victim and a father, so it's a strange situation."

He believes that both Nate and Erik deserve a chance to live as free individuals one day. "It's a hot issue," he says. "But they're juveniles, and they should be treated as juveniles."

Brian Stauffer
Curt and Pat Jensen hold a picture of their only son, 
Erik, before he and Nate Ybanez were convicted of 
first-degree murder.
Anthony Camera
Curt and Pat Jensen hold a picture of their only son, Erik, before he and Nate Ybanez were convicted of first-degree murder.

Nate checked into prison in November 1999. Though he's had run-ins with "canines" -- prisonspeak for convicts who prey on young inmates -- he says he's never been raped and never had to stab anyone, although he's willing to stand his ground if need be.

Peace doesn't come easy in the joint. He's been busted for tattooing, a prank in which he tried to glue a lock shut, gambling, and creating a disruption to help facilitate an escape. "Nobody here respects the law," he wrote in his diary. "In prison, you learn to hate the law."

He misses the world beyond the barbed wire. "Because I got locked up so young, I didn't get to do hardly any of the big things," he wrote. "I've driven a car less than ten times. Never even had a driver's license. I can count on one hand the number of girlfriends I've had. Only two of them were real. The others just kid crushes. And I never had sex with any of them. Yeah, ha. Ha. Laugh, but I was abused and had a bad childhood so sex was a real issue with me. I was waiting for the right girl. I've never been in a bar. Never been to an art gallery. Never paid taxes. You get the idea, never really did anything."

Erik has also been busted for having tattoos, and for being involved in several fights. He was given punitive segregation in 23-hour-a-day lockdown three times in his first three years. The last offense got him sent to a maximum-security facility for a little more than six months. Now Erik's back in a mid-level security prison, where he spends much of his time painting in the shop.

Erik's now 24; he's spent more than a quarter of his life behind bars. He's a lot bigger and stronger than he was seven years ago; he wasn't done growing when he got locked up. His skin is a chalky white, and his arm inked up with the jailhouse tats that he designed.

He calls home twice weekly, and his parents visit every week. It was hard at first, and they cried all the time. Erik says it sucks that they get to leave and he has to stay, but he still looks forward to their visits rather than wishing away the outside world, as many prisoners do.

Curt and Pat Jensen are as proud as two parents of a convicted murderer can be. They've watched Erik grow through the spiritual and philosophical changes that most parents observe when their kids are in college. He's written five sci-fi books and continues to write music.

"He's turned into the person I hope he would've turned into on the streets," Pat says. "He's a very bright young man, and he's compassionate, which is incredible, given his situation. I will never ever give up on trying to get him out."

Even though Erik's young, he's old-school in the joint.

"Any younger dude that comes in, I try to snatch them up and put them under my wing, if I can, if they show anything," he says. "But I can't just put myself out there for somebody who's not going to reciprocate it. If they're just going to let people roll over them, I just don't have the time for it. If a white dude comes into the pod and there's no dirt on him, then I'll automatically go to him and see if he needs anything. Same as if a Mexican comes into the pod, a Mexican will go to him and see if he needs anything. And so on and so forth.

"That way you're also bringing somebody else into the fold, unless they turn out to be no good, which happens. But as long as they're somebody good, that's somebody else who's standing on your side when a rumble comes."

When Erik was first locked up, he survived because an older white dude looked out for him, he says. And he learned the rules: You have to fight if someone tries to take something from you. Don't snitch, don't mess with fags, lay low, stick to your own. Whenever Erik screwed up, the older guy was there to show him how to better the situation the next time, and to help squash any beef heading his way.

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